W. Joseph Campbell

Why the ‘panic broadcast’ myth lives on

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 29, 2011 at 9:55 am

It’s a delicious media myth that The War of the Worlds radio dramatization 73 years ago set off nationwide panic and mass hysteria — a media myth that lives on for an impressive variety of reasons.

Welles and 'War of the Worlds'

What has been called the “panic broadcast” aired on CBS radio on Sunday evening, October 30, 1938. The War of the Worlds dramatization starred and was directed by Orson Welles, a 23-year-old prodigy. He was supported by actors of his “Mercury Theatre on the Air” troupe.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the dramatization supposedly was so alarming and realistic in its accounts of invading Martians wielding deadly heat rays, that listeners by the tens of thousands — or perhaps the hundreds of thousands — were convulsed in panic.

That, at least, is how American newspapers reported the reaction to the broadcast.

“A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners throughout the nation,” the New York Times said on its front page of October 31, 1938.

“For an hour,” the Washington Post declared, “hysterical pandemonium gripped the Nation’s Capital and the Nation itself.”

But the panic and hysteria so commonly associated with The War of the Worlds show was hyped. Exaggerated. It did not on anything approaching nationwide scale, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong.

Sure, some listeners may have been frightened or disturbed by what they heard. But that’s hardly synonymous with being panicked or pitched into mass hysteria.

Most listeners of the show, overwhelmingly, were not frightened. They recognized it for what it was, a clever and imaginative radio play on the eve of Halloween.

Nonetheless, the “panic broadcast” occupies an extraordinary place in American media history; it lives on as the radio show that caused fright and terror beyond measure.

A prominent reason is that the tale of panic and hysteria is almost too good, too delicious not to be true.

In that way, the “panic broadcast” is like many media myths — a savory, intriguing tale that never loses appeal. The War of the Worlds radio myth, of course, is especially popular this time of year.

Moreover, the “panic broadcast” myth endures because it evokes the latent power of media content:  Media messages have the potential to produce effects that are unpredictable, wide-ranging, and even dangerous.

The myth also lives on because it offers implicit reassurance for contemporary media audiences: It reminds and reassures them of their comparative sophistication. Back then, back in the 1930s, media audiences were pretty gullible, as the panicked reactions to The War of the Worlds suggest. But that’s not so much the case today, this line of thinking goes (which overlooks such recent stunts as the Colorado balloon boy and the TV report of the breakup of Belgium).

Another powerful explanation for the tenacity of The War of the Worlds myth is found in its link to the legend and bad-boy image of Orson Welles, who gained lasting fame and acclaim with his 1941 cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

The “panic broadcast” helped confirm the talent and reputation of Welles, who did his most memorable work before he was 30.

Interestingly, Welles appeared at what he called “a terrifying mass press interview” the day after the “panic broadcast” to say he regretted “any misapprehension which our broadcast last night created among some listeners.”

Welles, who was unshaven and acted a bit contrite, insisted it was unfathomable anyone really could have mistaken The War of the Worlds radio dramatization for an alien invasion.

Welles told reporters that he was “extremely surprised to learn that a story which has become familiar to children through the medium of comic strips and many succeeding novels and adventure stories should have had such an immediate and profound effect upon radio listeners.”

Years later, however, Welles was only too eager to endorse the notion that the broadcast had stirred wide panic. He gleefully told an interviewer:

“Houses were emptying, churches were filling up; from Nashville to Minneapolis, there was wailing in the street and the rending of garments.”


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